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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Judging judges, desperate cellists,
and Al-Qaeda Christmas festivities,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,
This is the time of year when kids up and down the country are going to dance, music and drama festivals. This should be a celebration of all their hard work, but it is often marred by poor judging. Speaking as a sometime dance judge myself (not in my own region, obviously) I can't help wondering what the procedure is for choosing these people?
Tina in Devon

Dear Tina,

Sadly, I have no idea how judges get asked (probably somebody on the board is related to them, or recommends them. I don't know about whether they're not meant to be local). We also have to remember that they don't get big bucks, and also that lots of really great teachers simply don't have the time. It takes a certain amount of public spirit to agree to sit down and hear numerous kids slog through (in some cases even the same pieces) in a boiling hot room with an out-of-tune piano in it, so some credit should be given to these judges for showing up at all.

On the other hand, I couldn't agree more that judging can be really diabolical. The last competition I attended (my kid was in it) saw her emerging with a bronze medal, so she was dead pleased, but with actual hisses and boos from the audience at the selection of the winner, who in the estimation of everyone in the room except the child's mother and the judge (Beth Randell, apparently a horn player) should have come second or third to last, not given a mark so high that I've never, in all the competitions my cello pupils and only kid have been in, seen remotely equalled!!

But remember, judges can have issues too. What B Randell has against cellists is unknown -- perhaps she was socked by one in the playground as a munchkin -- but, as a horn player, she is naturally fussier about horn-playing. (Well, it's natural for some people. I'd never heard or met any of the three cellists playing, but I thought they were all robbed!!!!) I still persist in thinking that she hadn't been told it was a music competition (Rachel was probably the third-best-looking!!!) But I digress.

The main thing, as you say, is that the people chosen may or may not have experience teaching the kinds of kids they're judging, and that their results must always involve a large dose of salt anyway. One person's opinion is just that: one person's opinion.

And also, remember this. You and I know, from not being kids, that life itself is unfair (Yo Yo Ma plays better than I do, with much less effort; Madonna gets to skip the usual channels of adoption; etc etc) so maybe the earlier British, middle-class, musical kids get a dose of unfairness, the better. (After all, they're all going to get what they want for Christmas, aren't they??? -- think of the kiddies in the third-world; the most they'll get is a warm handshake.

Yours in philosophical vein,

Ask Alice

Hello Alice
I am 13 years old and I recently got a new cello, full size, of my very own instead of borowing a school one. I was wondering, i suddenly seem to have become rusty and no matter how hard i try my fingers won't stretch to the correct position or in the right place. On my last cello(s) i had strips of tape where i could put my first finger. But now that that's gone and i have no guidelines i feel that i am failing. I don't take grades but i do play for fun, however at the moment, it is not that fun. Is this normal? Will i get used to it? Am i failing???
desperate cello kid

Dear desperate,
No, of course you're not failing. Adjusting to a new cello (especially if it's a bigger size but sometimes even if it ISN'T) just takes a while. My first piece of advice is to ask your music teacher at school to fix a new tape (or the little adhesive spots you can buy work just as well, on the cello's neck, your side) where your first finger goes. My second piece of advice is not to panic!!!!!

I'll bet the cello's out of tune, not you.

On the other hand, if your fingers DO feel overly stretched when it IS properly tuned, it's either that you're just taking time to get used to it or (and this is the only really worrying thing) the cello really could be, at this point, slightly too big for you. Only an expert (cello teacher or string-playing specialist at a music shop) can help you if it is, but you have to be brave enough to ask for it. Nobody's going to laugh at you!! They're all just going to think: 'This kid may not be taking grades, but she or he IS taking her/his cello playing seriously. How can I help?'

PLEASE PLEASE do this, because, if you don't and the cello IS too big you can hurt the muscles in your hands. Promise you'll write back and tell me what happens.

Yours cellistically,

Ask Alice

I found your comments on Saddam Hussein most interesting and whilst I, a mere viola player, would never doubt the credentials of a cellist in deciding suitable punishments for foreign despots, I would like to suggest that you stick to your usual principles with regard to capital punishment.

Whilst Saddam, Bin Laden, the Pope and indeed Chris deBurgh have few justified claims to a long and happy life, I would have thought ritual humiliation would be a far worse punishment than death.

Have you considered teaching him cello for one term and then insisting he plays 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas' on one note in front of hundreds of people at one of your cello Christmas concerts in aid of HarrisHospisCare? Invite a few Al Quaeda notables to the concert and you can inflict humiliation and pain simultaneously.

Yours in peace
Gloria Stoatgobbler

Dear Gloria,

What an enchanting idea!!!!!!! Why didn't I think of that???

After all, all that a charity Christmas concert really, really needs to boost everyone's quotient of Christmas cheer is Saddam, or any other mass-murderer really, dressed presumably as S Claus or elf, playing We wish you a merry Christmas!!!!!!! And what a delightful touch to invite some Al Qaeda notables too, to boost the bass section for the carols!!! I can see them now, beards bobbing, turbans bouncing from side to side, eyes crinkled up with mirth, dancing to Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer arranged for 22 cellos and a French horn quartet. Perhaps Bin Laden might run the raffle, while his fat little sidekick distributes the wine and fruit-juice? Perhaps not, as we really need more people at the door. But won't they all enjoy it!!!!!!

However, while I, a mere cellist, would never doubt the mature expertise of a violist in playing anything on one note, I am most curious about how you might teach anyone, despotic or otherwise, how to do it. (Or is it one of those viola jokes about teaching violists spiccato by writing long notes with 'solo' written over them?)

Yours in curiosity,

PS By the by, many people might agree about the Pope, of course, but what's Chris deBurgh done to you???????

Copyright © 17 November 2006 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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